‘Assassination team leader’ linked to Saudi prince is pictured entering consulate where journalist Khashoggi vanished
A Turkish newspaper published timestamped pictures it said showed Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb entering the consulate hours before journalist Jamal Khashoggi was allegedly murdered and dismembered there
A Turkish newspaper on Thursday pointed a finger at a Saudi security official close to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, publishing pictures it said showed the official entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul hours before Khashoggi disappeared there.
At the same time, Riyadh’s ally Washington kept up its cautious stance, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recommending President Donald Trump give the Saudis “a few more days” to wrap up their investigation into the suspected murder of Khashoggi.
More than two weeks since he disappeared after stepping inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, neither Turkey nor the United States have publicly confirmed Khashoggi is dead or said that Riyadh is to blame.
But with a steady stream of sometimes macabre claims leaked to the Turkish press, Riyadh is under increasing pressure to explain what happened to Khashoggi, a former regime insider who became critical of Prince Mohammed.
Turkish police overnight undertook a nine-hour search of the residence of the Saudi consul to Istanbul – who abruptly left the country on Tuesday – and also searched the consulate for the second time.
The controversy threatens to rip apart Prince Mohammed’s attempt to portray himself as a modernising Arab ruler, with his planned investment conference in Riyadh next week hit by a litany of big name cancellations.
Turkish press reports – which commentators suspect are based on deliberate government leaks – have suggested that Khashoggi was killed by a 15-person “assassination team” who flew in on two chartered planes and then interrogated, tortured and killed him.
The pro-government Sabah newspaper on Thursday said Saudi security official Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb was the leader of the alleged team. He has been previously photographed close to the crown prince during a trip earlier this year to the United States.
A photo published by the Houston Chronicle shows him in Prince Mohammed’s entourage when he visited a Houston subdivision in April to see rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Harvey.
The same man wore lapel pins, including one of the flags of Saudi Arabia and America intertwined, that other bodyguards accompanying Prince Mohammed wore on the trip.
The three-week trip across the US saw Prince Mohammed meet with business leaders and celebrities, including Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, who now owns The Washington Post.
“Here is the head of the execution team,” said Sabah’s headline Thursday, and the paper then detailed Mutreb’s movements on the day Khashoggi went missing.
NEW revelation by @Sabah.
• Pictures showing Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, a Colonel member of Saudi Crown Prince MBS’s security team, outside the Saudi Consulate
• Report claims he entered the Consulate at 9 am on October 2, several hours before #Khashoggi’s entrance pic.twitter.com/avIFkgYQ1A
— Ragıp Soylu (@ragipsoylu) October 17, 2018
Giving precise times based on CCTV footage, the newspaper reported that Mutreb went into the consulate more than three hours before Khashoggi entered the building.
In a series of CCTV images, Mutreb was then seen outside the consul’s residence, then later at his hotel near the Saudi mission with a “large suitcase”, and finally at the airport in the early evening.
The pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper on Wednesday claimed it had heard audio tapes in which Khashoggi’s alleged killers tortured him by cutting his fingers off before his decapitation.
But such details have yet to be aired publicly by the Turkish leadership under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“Turkey is managing the process very carefully, successfully,” Justice Minister Abdulhamit Gul said, without giving further details on the inquiry.
Riyadh has strongly denied involvement in Khashoggi’s disappearance.
After US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited both Riyadh and Ankara, US President Donald Trump Wednesday defended his cautious stance over Khashoggi, who was living in self-imposed exile in the US.
“I’m not giving cover (to Saudi Arabia) at all,” he has insisted, vowing that the truth would come out within days.
He indicated that the US administration had not heard the tapes referred to by Yeni Safak and added he wanted Turkey share the evidence.
He said the United States had “asked for it (the tapes), if it exists. I am not sure yet that it exists, probably does, possibly does”.
In the searches at the Saudi consul’s residence, Turkish investigators were seen paying particular attention to the garage and later left carrying evidence in bags and boxes.
Abdulkadir Selvi, a pro-government columnist in the Hurriyet newspaper, said Turkish investigators found that an “expert team” tried to remove evidence from the consulate.
Selvi said that despite the attempt, investigators were able obtain some evidence and added it would be correct to describe Khashoggi’s disappearance as an “assassination”.
The furore has also blown a huge hole in next week’s Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh, which was meant to showcase Prince Mohammed’s plans for reform.
French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire on Thursday became the latest in an array of policymakers and corporate chiefs to pull out. US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said he will decide later on Thursday whether to attend.
Additional reporting by Associated Press